PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Half of Rhode Island voters this November could cast their ballots some way other than at the polls on Election Day, elections officials estimate, making it a historic election with potentially complicated vote-counting procedures.
Officials laid out where those procedures stand, along with current efforts to keep voting safe and secure and keep misinformation at bay, at a lengthy briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon.
The briefing included Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Attorney General Peter Neronha, Board of Elections executive director Bob Rapoza, State Police Col. James Manni and Special Agent in Charge Joseph Bonavolonta from the FBI’s Boston office.
Rapoza, who joined virtually, shared the latest thinking on one of the biggest questions: when will we have results?
The in-person votes cast at 421 polling places on Election Day will be counted first, Rapoza said. The machines will be turned off at 8 p.m. and will transmit unofficial results to the Board of Elections, which will be posted online.
Then, at 10 p.m., the elections board will instruct the cities and towns to transmit results from the current 20-day early in-person voting period from their voting machines at the local board of canvassers. Those results will also be posted online.
Those ballots are technically called emergency mail ballots, per state law, though this year state leaders have called them “early, in person” ballots in order more clearly explain what they are.
However, the timeline for counting mail ballots that are either mailed to the Board of Elections or deposited in drop boxes across the state is still to be determined.
In previous years, all the mail ballots were counted before the results were put online in one batch, often days after the election. But with such a large number of mail ballots expected — potentially influencing the outcomes of many races — the Board of Elections plans to discuss at its meeting Monday whether they might release mail ballot numbers on a rolling basis while counting.
“Our goal is to finish tabulating mail ballots as quickly as possible after the polls close,” Rapoza said.
He said Board of Elections staff travel to the post office in Providence every day with a Rhode Island State Police escort to retrieve mail ballots.
He noted that on Election Day there will be 460 drop boxes for mail ballots across the state. Mail ballots can be placed in those boxes until 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, and many of those boxes won’t be transported to the Board of Elections until the next day.
But Rapoza said the Board of Elections has already gotten back more than 113,000 mail ballots out of 175,000 sent to votes who requested them, with more than 92,000 processed and scanned in so far. The backlog is expected to be cleared by Friday evening. (Voters can go to vote.ri.gov to see if their ballot has been received and scanned in yet.)
Scanning the ballot in is not the final step; the signature-verifying process started Thursday, Rapoza said, and voters will be contacted if there is an issue with their mail ballot that needs to be corrected. Voters will have seven days to fix any deficiencies.
Rapoza said 55,000 voters have taken advantage of the early voting period so far, noting that hundreds of people had voted just during the time the news conference was taking place. Voters can go to their city and town halls until Nov. 2 to vote prior to Election Day.
Rapoza said it’s possible that half of all ballots this year could be cast using either the mail ballot or emergency/early ballot options. Almost 470,000 Rhode Islanders cast ballots in the 2016 election, nearly matching the record high of 475,428 back in 2008.
Election security and misinformation
FBI Special Agent in Charge Joseph Bonavolonta said he was particularly concerned about the “wide reach, breadth and scope” of social media disinformation campaigns, and urged people to cross-check information they see on social media with reliable sources.
He said the United States’ main foreign adversaries — China, Russia and Iran — often seek to “undermine the public’s confidence in our democratic institutions or processes.”
He noted that foreign influence comes in multiple forms, including cyberattacks and the spreading of misinformation.
“Anybody who relies on social media to ingest information related to political topics, social-type issues … just be aware of who it is that you’re following, what it is that you’re reading, and do simple due diligence and fact-checking and cross referencing to try to verify the bona fides of that individual or those groups that you’re engaging with,” Bonavolonta said.
He noted that foreign influence in U.S. affairs has been around for decades, but has “morphed and evolved” in the age of social media.
The FBI and director of national intelligence announced on Wednesday night that they confirmed Iran has been spreading misinformation through spoofed emails sent to voters, obtained from U.S. voter registration records.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said her office has added “several layers of security” to protect the Central Voter Registration System from hacking, though she couldn’t elaborate on the measures for security purposes.
She said her office has also launched a new email address where people can flag potential misinformation: email@example.com.
“These threats are real and constant,” she said.
Preparations for unrest
State Police Col. James Manni said Rhode Island’s Emergency Operations Center will be activated on Oct. 27 in preparation for the election.
“Different groups might be incited by whoever gets elected,” Manni said. “We are prepared for all of that.”
He said there was no specific information about protests in Rhode Island surrounding the election results, but said intelligence is being shared between regional law enforcement agencies on a daily and hourly basis.
The state police is also helping protect the Board of Elections, with troopers inside the Cranston offices on Election Day and also helping escort mail ballots to ensure they remain secure.